The United States’ failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is a devastating blow for the sport in this country, but it’s also a clear reflection of how much of a damaging effect the top-flight league has had on the national team in the last number of years.
Coached by Bruce Arena, who has never coached a professional club team outside of the United States, he fielded a team on Tuesday night that was made entirely out of current MLS or former MLS players, except one — Christian Pulisic, the one star that continues to be light years ahead of anyone in the US player squad.
Arena’s insistence on selecting US players from MLS was no mere accident. In 2014 when he was LA Galaxy coach, this is what he said about then USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann:
“I believe an American should be coaching the national team,” Arena told the New York Times. “I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture.”
Time has proven that Arena’s MLS-or-bust mantra was dead wrong.
But the issues are not all on Bruce Arena nor are they purely a guilt by association with MLS. Here are several reasons why MLS needs to take some of the blame for the USA’s failure:
1) MLS breeds a climate of uncompetitiveness and unaccountability.
When 54% of teams that compete in MLS qualify for the playoffs, the lack of competitiveness and cutting edge in the USA’s top-flight soccer league is evident for all to see. Reflected by TV ratings that continue to flatline, MLS has significant issues encouraging viewers to watch the league on US TV.
That combined with the opinion, held by many experts, that the MLS season doesn’t “begin” in earnest until August when the playoff race enters its final lap, it’s no wonder that the MLS players that wear the shirt for the US Men’s National Team are used to playing in an environment where there isn’t as much pressure as other leagues around the world where every game truly matters.
In 2014, Vancouver Whitecaps winger and US international Brek Shea best summed up how different the culture is in MLS compared to playing in England when he said this: